Longform

Forget Shorty, Get Marvin!

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A fan of Leonard's novels, Mounts invited the writer to come along on the 1985 tour because he thought Leonard might find the experience edifying. "He writes about cons, and I work with them," Mounts explains.

Based on the fairly detailed knowledge of Palm Beach County's grid system of roads that shows up in some of Leonard's novels, Mounts assumed Leonard lived somewhere in the county. When the judge tried to contact Leonard regarding the prison tour, however, he learned that the author lived in suburban Detroit. (Leonard has since bought a second home in North Palm Beach.)

Leonard couldn't make it at the time -- he was too busy with a promotional blitz for his novel Glitz -- but after that initial contact the two men started to correspond. A friendship developed, and in 1989, when Leonard came to West Palm Beach to speak at a library benefit, Mounts invited him to visit.

During his stay Leonard joined Marvin and Polly Mounts on the patio of their West Palm Beach home, where the judge showed him some photographs he had collected over the years, including one of a man with an ice pick sticking straight out of his head. As Leonard recalls now, speaking over the phone from his suburban Detroit home, the judge also related the tale of a man who had killed his wife, put her in the couple's car, and driven the vehicle into a giant pit he had dug just north of Gainesville. The man then abandoned the car and filled the pit with dirt.

When the police found her -- "How they found her, I have no idea," Leonard deadpans -- they brought the body to Palm Beach International Airport, where the county coroner set it on a gurney behind a jet engine. The body stunk so bad, Leonard recounts, that the coroner wanted to make sure the smell would be forced downwind when he examined it for the crime report.

Additionally Mounts told Leonard about a man who had raped a chicken. He had pictures of the chicken. "So I asked him, 'How did you know the guy did it?'" Leonard says with a laugh. And Mounts responded, "'He had chicken feathers in his pubic hair.'"

From this Leonard hatched an idea: "I thought, 'Gee, he's a wonderful source. Why don't I do [write about] a judge -- but not a nice judge. It's got to be a judge with attitude. I want a judge who will take the sentencing guidelines all the way -- someone who refers to the electric chair as Old Sparky but is also a womanizer. So I made up a character."

Several times a week, Mounts heads to a local bar situated on the bottom floor of the Helen Wilkes Hotel in West Palm Beach. In Maximum Bob Leonard describes the bar and hotel this way: "The big kidney-shaped bar at the Helen Wilkes was a hangout for judges and lawyers, both sides, and some of the newspaper people."

The bar is, in fact, kidney-shaped, and most of the people seated there and at the nearby tables are lawyers, judges, and city employees. Mounts has been a regular happy-hour customer there for years, reports the diminutive, gray-haired lady who scurries around busing trays and ringing up lunch customers as they leave the dim lighting of the hotel for the sunshine of Banyan Avenue. Usually, she adds, the judge comes in after work and drinks gallons of iced tea. Then he goes home to his wife.

In Leonard's book Bob Gibbs also hangs out at the Helen Wilkes. But Gibbs doesn't worry about running home to meet his wife, nor does he harbor any guilt about inviting a plucky young probation officer to meet him there for drinks. And this Palm Beach County judge prefers Jim Beam.

"Elmore Leonard takes things from reality and fictionalizes them," explains Gregg Sutter, a former Hollywood, Florida, resident who, as Leonard's research assistant, has logged hundreds of hours in Mounts' courtroom. "The reality becomes a structure for his story."

So if you're Elmore Leonard and you want to write a novel about a judge, you need a model, or at the very least you need someone with a wealth of knowledge on the subject. Mounts certainly can provide a solid stream of stories concerning bizarre cases -- the chicken raper, the car with the buried wife, and on and on -- but he's not exactly, you know, colorful himself.

For starters the fictional judge would need to be a lot tougher and a lot less romantic than Mounts. You'd have to lose, for instance, the real story of how Mounts met his wife Polly of 38 years. That would be in his final year of law school at the University of Florida, when the then-27-year-old Mounts met his bride-to-be at a picnic down upon the Suwannee River. He read her e.e. cummings, and they talked about their favorite classical composers. He proposed later that afternoon.

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Michael Freedman